Synopsis – Set in Hollywood during the transition from silent films to talkies, focusing on a mixture of historical & fictional characters.
My Take – With films like Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) behind him, filmmaker Damien Chazelle, the youngest-ever Oscar winner for Best Director, has become comfortable in a position from which he could choose any subject to helm and cast any actor/actress he wanted, that too despite the financial failure of his last film, First Man (2018), the Neil Armstrong biopic which I personally adored.
For his latest, writer-director Damien Chazelle takes us back to the early days of cinema, when talking pictures were a jaw-dropping phenomenon and Hollywood was still being created, and the uneasy transition that took place to the talkies. And while reaffirming his personally stated ‘hate letter to Hollywood and a love letter to movies’, the result is a messy, outrageous, often-hilarious, visually dazzling epic about the excesses that typified an emerging industry during the Roaring Twenties.
A polarizing yet brave attempt that captures the madness of silent era Hollywood, when devil-may-care directors and producers rode roughshod over health and safety concerns, and norms of human decency in their quixotic quest for celluloid perfection. Weighing in at a hefty 189 minutes, director Chazelle and his team deserve credit for providing a unique experience in regards to pacing, setting and tone, an experience that grabs you by its chaotic and constantly shifting imagination and never lets go.
Sure, despite being backed by fantastic visuals and sturdy performances, the film does eventually feels a bit long into its third hour, and loses some tenacity, but not enough so that the film entirely collapses in on itself. If nothing else, it earns its keep as a cinematic experience that will have people talking for years to come and be remembered as the kind of ambitious and scabrous feature we may never see again.
The story follows Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant in 1920s California who works as a flunky for a studio boss and finds himself in the middle of a wild party at his Hollywood mansion, the centerpiece of which will be a live elephant. Though not exactly the high life he wanted, but Manny has big dreams and yearns to be part of the film-making process. At the same party, he crosses paths with fellow aspiring starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who gets picked out as a replacement and ends up seizing her moment the very next day by upstaging the furious star of a faltering western.
And while Nellie is seizing her moment, Manny has entered the orbit of Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a dashing leading man who takes the Mexican under his wing. Especially after Manny saves the day by scouring the city to find a replacement after the only working camera gets smashed as a result of a chaotic set, which saw Jack gets sloshed mid-shoot and an extra getting killed.
As Manny and Nellie stars begin to rise, they also end up crossing paths with African-American jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), industry journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), and Chinese-American cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), as each see the rise and fall of their respective careers spanning the end of silent films and the beginning of sound productions; each navigating the shifting business of Hollywood.
The large-scale epic in a word, ambitious, both in scope and mere technicality. It opens with an utterly ravishing party sequence that captures the maddening spirit of roaring twenties Hollywood, setting a visual bar that is fairly high. While there are a number of fantastic sequences throughout the film, this key party sequence where each of the characters are introduced/first intervene is, without a doubt, the highlight of the film.
Realized through elegant camera work and gorgeous production design, the house parties of pre-sound Hollywood are vivacious and electric. It seems director Chazelle is having as much fun as ever with cinematographer Linus Sandgren here, moving the camera around in elaborate one-takes across multiple stories of chaotic mansions. While its characters are fictional, the screenplay blends them in with passing names of real-life historical Hollywood figures, as well as thinly-veiled references to others.
However, through all the elation, the reality of these parties is that it’s not all glitz and glamor. The film explores themes of progress, and perpetual change, the idea that you never know when a small encounter might change your life forever, and what happens if you catch your dream.
The film is long enough that it can cause viewers to wonder, whether sensationalism and navel-gazing are the film’s only tricks. The film echoes the sensational shock and awe of the star machine, inviting the audience to marvel and recoil at the wonder and horror it has wrought. But director Chazelle is deft enough to suggest, more than once, that he’s playing at something deeper and more challenging. Amongst all the riot, one of the best segments of the film is when Nellie takes on her first role in a talking movie. The interplay between the sound technician, the cameraman, the actors and the director is priceless.
It also helps that Justin Hurwitz has once again composed another terrific score and the photography, costumes, and production design are all stellar. Outside of some shoddy editing, especially a bizarre film montage at the end that really did not gel, the technical aspects of the film are quite an achievement.
But while the film is determined to show all excess and hedonism of the era in all its glory, there are moments where the proceedings gets pretty gross. Also, despite the film’s lengthy run time the characters that started out with more depth gradually turn more generic, making the film feel a little self-indulgent, sapping some of the ending’s impact.
Performance wise, Diego Calva is a likable presence as the centerpiece character and handles himself well with a layered turn. Margot Robbie has already become a master at playing over the top, wide eyed, messy characters. Her portrayal of the brash and troubled Jersey girl flying by the seat of her pants is comical and poignant by turns.
Brad Pitt fittingly plays the drunken but goodhearted film star. He perfectly embodies the film’s tone, which pivots from broadly comedic to melodramatic. Jean Smart is also a welcome presence as the curt and astute gossip columnist, Jovan Adepo makes his character sympathetic and sells his respective heavy moment well, and Li Jun Li is stylish and charismatic in her role as well.
Tobey Maguire is surprisingly good at being a creepy underworld figure. In other roles, Lukas Haas, Katherine Waterson, Samara Weaving, Eric Roberts, Max Minghella, Flea, Damon Gupton, Chloe Fineman, Troy Metcalf, P. J. Byrne, Jovan Adepo, Jeff Garlin, Phoebe Tonkin, Spike Jonze, Rory Scovel, and Olivia Wilde are effective. On the whole, ‘Babylon’ is a messy and bold epic masterpiece that is both ambitious and dazzling for better or worse.
Directed – Damien Chazelle
Rated – R
Run Time – 189 minutes